David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BOSTON - How many tries does a team get to make history, to go from worst to first, to reach the World Series?
Twice, the Red Sox missed by a matter of inches Saturday night in ALCS Game 6, a pair of misfires that let Max Scherzer exhale and allowed the Tigers to remain hopeful at a hostile Fenway Park.
First it was Dustin Pedroia, who hooked a high fly ball that left a shadow on the leftfield foul pole and immediately conjured up images of Carlton Fisk's arm-waving jig from the 1975 World Series. But it went foul.
Later, Johnny Gomes' long drive caromed off the Green Monster about a foot from the top edge of the wall.
Both shots were painstakingly close -- so close that Red Sox Nation probably wondered if this might not be the night after all.
"Against great pitchers such as [Scherzer], those opportunities are fleeting," Red Sox manager John Farrell said afterward. "You're wondering if you're going to get them back."
Maybe Scherzer, the Cy Young Award favorite, would indeed send the Tigers to an all-or-nothing Game 7 and get the baseball into the right hand of Justin Verlander. That was a nightmare scenario for the Red Sox, and the Tigers had every reason to believe it could happen -- right up until manager Jim Leyland felt compelled to pull Scherzer with one out in the seventh inning.
It was the moment the Red Sox had waited for.
Drew Smyly got the grounder he wanted from Jacoby Ellsbury -- only to have Jose Iglesias kick it for an error. When the bullpen door opened again and Jose Veras strutted toward the mound, there was a feeling at Fenway Park that something big was about to happen, even as one its smallest residents, Shane Victorino, stepped to the plate.
Victorino has been a much better target than a hitter lately, but this time he delivered the punishment rather than absorb it.
Veras jumped ahead 0-and-2 in the count but then hung a breaking ball that Victorino hammered. On this third try, the Red Sox were able to steer this one fair and just far enough.
Victorino knew what he had done the moment he made contact. As he watched the ball's flight and began running toward first base, he raised his right arm, then pointed skyward with both hands once the ball disappeared into the front row of the Monster seats.
"The first thought was get enough air to tie the game," Victorino said. "And then I thought this could get up over the wall. All the emotions went through my mind. No disrespect if guys took it wrong, but I was definitely excited running around the bases. I hope they understand it was a special moment for me, for the city."
The Tigers still had six outs left to recover from the 5-2 deficit, but the party already had begun at Fenway. Victorino was a pint-sized tornado as he spun around the bases, and in an ALCS in which runs had been nearly impossible to come by, a three-run lead felt like 30.
No one was happier to see Victorino's grand slam -- the second of his playoff career -- clear the Monster than Boston reliever Franklin Morales, who had been booed off the mound in giving up the Red Sox's 1-0 lead in the sixth.
The Boston bullpen had been virtually airtight during this postseason, allowing one run in 17 innings in the first five games of the ALCS and posting a 0.96 ERA for the first two playoff rounds.
But in a blink, Morales revealed that he wasn't up to the moment, walking Prince Fielder on four pitches and giving up a two-run single to Victor Martinez. But the bumbling Tigers ran themselves out of a big inning in that pivotal sixth, and the Red Sox must have figured their luck had turned.
The last time the Red Sox played at Fenway, it was David Ortiz who rescued them with the game-turning grand slam that flipped Torii Hunter head-over-heels into the Boston bullpen. On this night, it was Victorino, signed this past winter as part of an offseason makeover.
Victorino's slam now sets up a World Series rematch with the Cardinals, whom the Red Sox swept in 2004 to finally beat the 86-year Curse of the Bambino. There's no hex this year, no jinx. Only a shot at redemption for the Red Sox, one they hope has them going from chumps to champs.